Spring break of my seventh-grade year was not my wildest on record, though what it lacked in the usual spring break trappings it made up for in folk art and maple syrup. Years later, my mother admitted she’d planned our road trip to Bennington, Vermont on a lark, lured there by the prospects of a Grandma Moses exhibition. Though my younger brother and I didn’t share Mom’s enthusiasm for Grandma Moses, we shared her minivan nonetheless. And so, 700 miles later, we arrived at our destination—or almost. As we drove in circles in search of Grandma’s art, we found instead a rare eyesore on the otherwise unblemished terrain.
“Stop the van!” I cried, and my mother—God bless her—did.
Groaning before us stood a dilapidated structure three stories tall, a wood-splintered, paint-peeling ruin that, in my inexpert opinion, seemed just a strong wind away from collapse. The porch sagged, the shutters hung loose from their hinges, and the windows—dust-caked as they were—nevertheless provided my imagination an unobscured view of the unspeakable horrors surely to have taken place there. My brother and I crossed the road and strode bravely toward the structure’s porch steps. We intended to go full-on Hardy Boys—to solve whatever mysteries that haunted place possessed. But then, following an unexplainable creak, our fight-or-flight instincts kicked in. We’d both seen enough horror movies to know how this played out, and so, after making up some face-saving excuse (“I gotta pee”) we began our hasty retreat to our mother in the minivan.
Before turning tail we spotted a faded sign suspended over the entrance, introducing us to the unforgettable Walloomsac Inn.
I mean it—that inn was unforgettable. For seventeen years I’ve remembered it. And then one day last month, after being haunted by its mystery long enough, I began searching for answers about its past. In its prime, the Walloomsac Inn was apparently the finest hotel in Vermont, one boasting a clientele including several presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) as well as Teddy Roosevelt’s family, who, according to lore, lived there for nearly a month during a scarlet fever outbreak. It was, as former proprietor Walter Berry described it in 1927, a “charming and healthful mountain resort,” one whose rooms were “light, airy and cheerful, neatly and comfortably furnished…”
Such descriptions seem impossible given what I observed seventy years later—a place ravaged by time, a monument to decay. A decay made all the more apparent given the inn’s proximity to its pristine neighbor across the road—the Old First Church, a white-steepled sanctuary so emblematic of New England life it seems to have been plucked from a postcard. Built in 1805, the beauty of the Old First Church persists. And its beauty, along with its view of the valley and the Green Mountains just beyond, surely contributed to Robert Frost’s decision to claim the hallowed ground as his final resting place.
We visited Frost’s grave in the moments following our encounter with the inn, the sanctity of the church and its manicured cemetery doing much to absolve my brother and me of our momentary trespass on the porch. Future English professor that I would become, one might think paying respects to a beloved poet would’ve had a powerful effect, though the opposite was true. All I remember of the visit were the pennies lining Frost’s embossed marker; a strange tribute, it seemed, and one that made little sense to a seventh-grader. The truth would only reveal itself years later, when I was older, wiser, and better prepared for the message Frost’s ghost was trying to send.
Seventeen years after my brief visit to Frost’s grave and the Walloomsac Inn, I call up Bennington Museum librarian Tyler Resch.
“What would you like to know?” he asks.
Everything and anything, I explain, related to the poet and the inn.
“Frost lived just four miles away in Shaftsbury, right? And he’s buried just across the street. It seems likely he must’ve known of the place, that there must’ve been some interaction.”
Tyler agrees, though he can neither confirm nor deny it. “I know a lot about Frost and a lot about the inn,” the 81-year-old tells me, “but I don’t know of any connection between them.”
During his time as a student at Amherst, Tyler regularly passed Frost–a poetry professor–going to and from his classes.
“I once heard him read at a fraternity house, too,” Tyler recalls. “It was all very casual.”
It makes for an engaging story, though it brings me no closer to understanding the history of the inn. I press further: “So what happened to the Walloomsac? How did it lose its luster?”
“It’s been a big mystery in Bennington for a long time now,” he says, adding that while it functioned as a bed and breakfast as recently as 25 years ago, state codes and upkeep costs eventually made for an unsustainable business model.
“People have always been curious about it, but when you go up to the door there’s a little sign that reads, ‘Private Property, Please Keep Off.’ Though one time,” Tyler adds, “an adventurous reporter from the Bennington Banner knocked on the door and the woman who still lives there, Arlene Berry, let her in and gave her an interview.”
That adventurous reporter was Hinda Mandell, and the article that resulted, “Keepers of the Key,” describes her afternoon spent at the inn alongside Arlene and her nieces. The 2005 article provided the public its first glimpse inside in over 15 years, a glimpse that revealed an interior “totally preserved” wrote Hinda, complete with its front desk still in place and Oriental rugs lining the floors. Given that she’s the last known member of the media to have been invited in, I can’t help but give her a ring, too. She’s surprised to hear from me, particularly because I’m interested in an article she wrote a decade back during her eight-month stint at the Bennington paper.
“What prompted you to knock?” I ask.
“I was a different person then,” Hinda admits, explaining that if she saw a sign that read “Private Property, Do Not Enter” there was a good chance she was going to knock. “Especially,” she continues, “if the sign was attached to a place that looked like the Wallomsac Inn.”
The approach paid off, granting the 25-year-old budding reporter exclusive access into the inn. Looking back on that afternoon a decade later, Hinda admits that few memories remain. “The only thing I remember is standing in a parlor-like space and it looking so…dim. A lot of houses have sunlight coming in, you know? But the inn was just…dim.” And then, in the same breath: “Doesn’t it have a reputation for being haunted?”
I assure her it does, though her own article quotes Arlene Berry as speaking to the contrary.
“Right,” Hinda agrees, “because for her it’s not scary, it’s home.”
All of which leads us back to Frost, his grave, the message he’s trying to send. Of course, he’s not the one sending it any longer; that job now belongs to those who pay their respects in pennies—whoever those people may be.
Though unconfirmed, at least a few online message boards offer a rationale for the poet’s penny-lined grave. The pennies are an homage, some say, to Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The poem—a staple of the high school English classroom—explores the fleeting nature of nature, how everything beautiful eventually fades, every dawn diminished by daylight. Thus, legend has it the pennies are meant to serve as our shiny reminder of that which will not last, a lesson all the more resonant given their placement atop Frost’s own mortal marker.
The poet in me can’t help but think it’s the decrepit inn down the road that makes the finer point: a reminder that what is today won’t always be, and what once was, wasn’t always.
Photo courtesy of Leslie Lazenby via Flickr